Navigating in Global Waters – Can Cultural Competence be Learned?

03/07/2022 Navigating in Global Waters – Can Cultural Competence be Learned?

Caryn Tamari

We’ve all heard the cultural stereotypes that imply people from certain countries or cultures are bound to be extremely nice, polite, laid back, lazy or hard working. But is there a shred of truth in these stereotypes? Can we talk about cultural tendencies and are they relevant to the way we conduct business with our customers, suppliers, and colleagues across the pond? Is it fair to say that Israelis tend to be more informal,  while others take a more formal approach?

It’s all in the mind(set)
To address this somewhat touchy subject, we recommend moving away from stereotypes and looking at it from a different perspective. You’ll need to put your preconceptions to one side and approach interactions with an open mind. 

Successful interactions (not to mention long-term working relationships) with your overseas counterparts start with the adoption of a global mindset. This means looking beyond your domain to see things from another’s perspective. It means being flexible (there isn’t only one way of doing things); curious (being interested in learning about the person and their culture); and really listening (paying close attention to what’s been said – and what’s not). It’s about keeping an open mind. 

It’s also about awareness – which starts with you. Take a moment to think about the answers to these questions:

Consider whether your answers are 100% aligned with your counterparts abroad. Chances are, they aren’t. Through comparing different work and communication styles, you can see where the gaps are.

Yes, things DO get lost in translation

While there’s a difference in the way English is spoken around the world (American versus British English), when English is your second language the challenge is even greater. 

There’s a vast difference between textbook-perfect language and the way we naturally communicate. Often, our daily interactions are filled with slang, idioms, and verbal shorthand. When you translate that verbiage directly into another language, it can come across as confusing, aggressive, or downright rude. 

What the heck, spellcheck?

If you receive a poorly written email in the middle of the night, you may roll your eyes at the misspellings and grammar fails. But always remember that it can be tough working in a second language all day. When people are pressured to deliver answers, grammar niceties may be a lower priority than getting someone in a different time zone the answers they need fast.  

Not everybody runs their business on WhatsApp!

You could have blinked at this and thought, “Of course not!” In some parts of the world, people often choose to communicate this way because it’s quicker. It’s also a very informal way of communicating. It works for some and is totally foreign to others. Pun intended.

What happened to the other 20%?

Some cultures do things very differently. Israel is known as an 80% culture. They have a reputation for turning on a dime and getting things done quickly. It’s their superpower. Dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” is where they can sometimes fall short. While some take this into account because they need something urgently, others may find this frustrating because they’re paying close attention to every last detail.  

Understanding that your work and communication styles may be very different to your overseas counterpart is essential in building strong and supportive relationships — as well as setting and meeting expectations. 

If you know better, you can be better

 Here are our top three tips to bridge the cultural divide and communicate effectively —

  1. Communicate kindly

To understand where someone is coming from, you need to walk a mile in their moccasins. Consider the challenges they are facing and show appreciation for their efforts. Make adjustments and meet them halfway. Being respectful and appreciative makes people more inclined to cooperate and assist you. And listen to the end without interrupting. You’ll get your chance to respond soon enough.

  1. Disagree without being disagreeable

Choose your words with care. You can voice your dissent as long as you couch your objections in terms that can be heard by the other person. “You must” comes across as confrontational. “Perhaps you can consider” or “How about” opens the way to constructive dialog that helps you move forward.

  1. Assume Positive Intent (API)

This sound advice comes from Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg. Never assume that someone is deliberately being inappropriate or consciously crossing boundaries. Don’t jump to conclusions. You can’t expect the same level of lingual mastery or depth of thought when someone isn’t communicating in their mother tongue. Make allowances. Assume that they mean well. If you aren’t sure, politely ask for clarification.

Cultural competency is achievable. But it goes beyond googling the dos and don’ts. While you don’t need to be an expert in every culture, you’ll build better relationships and foster greater trust through appreciating the similarities and respecting the differences. 

Think of it as acting like an international electrical adapter you take in your luggage, which adapts to the different wiring in each country. To succeed in international markets, it’s best to adjust your communication to the culture — or watch the sparks fly! 

Caryn Tamari
Senior Consultant and Trainer


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